The Apple iMac is a powerful work of art — it boasts a huge and bright screen in a sexy form factor. For the majority of potential users, it’s perfect for getting work done, editing photos and video, playing games, surfing the web, and most anything else. The only downside to the iMac is that you can’t fold it up and pack it around with you like a MacBook.

On the other hand, having a workhorse iMac with plenty of storage at home can free up your mobile computing requirements. When an iMac becomes your home base, you can do most of your traveling with an iPad Air . . . or even choose the 11-inch MacBook Air. It’s a plan that has its charms, that’s for sure.

Meanwhile, which iMac is the best buy for the money? Should you splurge on the gorgeous 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display?

How to Choose the Best iMac for You

Earlier this year, Apple introduced a new low-end, entry-level 21.5-inch iMac at its $1,099 price point. In my mind, it’s really a better fit for office environments, schools, or for people who desire a Mac but have minimal computing needs and a very tight budget. Why? Compared to the next option for just $200 more, the low-end iMac is woefully underpowered. The low-end comes with a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor while the 2.15-inch 2.7GHz iMac has nearly double the processor clock speed (2.7GHz) . . . in addition to being a quad-core processor. Plus you get a 1TB hard drive over a 500GB hard drive.

So, the Apple 21.5-inch 2.7GHz iMac model is clearly the better, smarter buy. It will perform well for years, even as Apple updates Mac OS X.

What about the 21.5-inch 2.9 GHz iMac with NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M and 1GB of video memory graphics?

This workhorse is perfect if you want to dabble with editing your own videos, have a large photo library, and want a better gaming experience. Get this midrange model iMac if you don’t want the massive 27-inch 3.2GHz behemoth taking up space in your home.

Speaking of the 27-inch iMac models, they are absolutely gorgeous. Using one will likely take some time getting used to because there will be so much workspace on the screen. If you multi-task with lots of apps and browser windows open at one time, a 27-inch model will spoil you.

Enter the iMac with 5K Retina Display

Oh baby, the new 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display is a work of art. It brings a new level of clarity to your screen, letting you edit large photos and 4K video with ease. It rocks a 3.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, uses a large and fast 1TB Fusion Drive, and taps an AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB of video memory to handle the graphics processing. The screen is huge, clear, and sharp . . . and the engine that runs it all purrs with plenty of horsepower.

Special Note: B&H is running some sweet deals on iMacs both with and without Retina displays. If you like the idea of a powerhouse iMac, take advantage of the savings and free two-day shipping.

Still, the most usable way to set up a Retina iMac is to run it in the default configuration, which gives you essentially the same amount of workspace that is in the standard 27-inch iMac — 2560 x 1440 pixels. The Retina iMac boasts an insane 14.7 million pixels with a resolution of 5,120 x 2,880, but four of those pixels are used to replicate just one pixel in the standard display, making it possible to get sharper looking lines, images, and text. (However, if you want to edit 4k video, the iMac delivers the video pixel-for-pixel.)

As of right now, it’s not like many households have either Internet bandwidth or the sources to stream 4K video — and most probably don’t have video cameras that shoot 4K video, either . . . but when they do, their iMac will make their footage look fabulous.

Choose the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display if you have the budget to experience it without regret, otherwise you might better spend the money on a standard model . . . and pickup an iPad Air 2 for your mobile needs.

What About iMac Upgrades?

As Apple continues to shrink and fine-tune its Mac designs, the company is making it harder than ever to upgrade them. As for the most recent iMacs, it’s extraordinarily difficult for regular humans to upgrade them at home. I would not plan on being able to upgrade a new iMac on your own.

Consequently, should you spend a premium to upgrade the memory and/or hard drive on a new iMac by buying directly from Apple’s own online store?

Maybe. If you plan to do serious photo and video work — or you want the best gaming experience you can get out of an iMac — then yes, it makes sense. Doubling the memory to 16GB will usually cost you about $200 extra from Apple and a 1TB Fusion Drive will set you back another $200. The Fusion Drive blends 128GB of fast flash storage with a traditional, slower hard drive with more capacity. Bumping up to 512GB of super-fast flash storage, on the other hand, will boost your cost by another $500.

Ouch.

Only do these upgrades if your budget is big or if you must build a system to get serious work done, and that includes if you’re investing in a Retina iMac. For the vast majority of Mac users, the midrange iMacs will deliver plenty of performance for years to come.

Choose Your iMac:

21.5-inch 1.4GHz iMac (lowest cost, underpowered)

21.5-inch 2.7GHz iMac (best overall buy)

21.5-inch 2.9GHz iMac (better graphics)

27-inch 3.2GHz iMac (huge screen, better graphics)

27-inch 3.4GHz iMac (huge screen, most power)

27-inch 3.5GHz with Retina 5K display (luscious screen, lots of power)


 

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.